When four Americans were killed during an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, two weeks ago, the entire nation felt the pain. But perhaps none more than other Foreign Service personnel, who could be the target next time.
Representing the United States overseas has a special set of rewards and dangers. For every posting in London and Paris, there are many more in desperate cities with no glitz. For every reception with a country’s intelligentsia, there are far less glamorous duties in support of U.S. policies locals don’t always like. For all the benefits of living abroad, there are dangers in some places that could be fatal on any given day.
“Four Americans, four patriots — they loved this country and they chose to serve it, and served it well,” President Obama said when he met the flight carrying the remains of Glen Doherty, Sean Smith, J. Christopher Stevens and Tyrone Woods at Andrews Air Force Base. “They had a mission, and they believed in it. They knew the danger, and they accepted it. They didn’t simply embrace the American ideal, they lived it.”
Obama’s words could apply to all Foreign Service workers. Many are represented by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), whose president, Susan Johnson, spoke to the Federal Diary last week about the terrorist attack. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Diary: How does the Benghazi attack affect the morale of Foreign Service officers?
Johnson: It does hit us. We feel the loss. On the other hand, the risks and the dangers inherent in this line of business is something that we’ve all accepted, so it’s not a huge surprise that a diplomat has been killed. I think 38 diplomats have been killed in the last 30 years who were not ambassadors.
I don’t think it affects morale in a bad way. Actually, I think it might have the reverse [effect] and make us all take pride in what we do in service to the country and in the courage of our colleagues and the sacrifices that members of our service and the families accept as a matter of course.
Does it remind us all and our families about the very real dangers out there? Of course. Do people have internal concerns they have to deal with? Yes, they do. But for better or worse, that is part and parcel of the profession.
Another thing that happens that is very, I think, inspiring and encouraging and motivating, and that is to see the outpouring of support from the American people, the media and others for the Foreign Service and what we do. And there’s no question that also helps. . . .
We’ve become the outposts or the face of our country and the easiest target for extremist groups who are using violence against diplomacy.
What do you think of the level of safety, particularly at consulates, which often are far less secure than embassies?
Johnson: The level of security is certainly an issue that has always been of concern or a priority for AFSA, and we’ve consistently been working with management, with the State Department, who also, I think, is committed to do all they can to protect our personnel. Now, do we always get the resources to do that at the level that we think is recommended? No. We don’t. But sometimes it’s some tough choices and tough trade-offs that have to be made on the level of security and also on the security-mission balance.
How do you rate the level of investment the government makes in terms of the physical security?
Johnson: I don’t have the exact numbers right here with me now, but certainly we have invested enormously more in the physical security over the last few decades than we used to before, and that’s consuming an increasing portion of the overall budget, unfortunately. Whether that’s enough and what the standard should be and whether we are investing it as wisely as we could? I think that’s a question that’s always out there.
How secure do Foreign Service personnel feel in their posts overseas, particularly in spots with a lot of tension?
Johnson: I think that varies a lot. It varies with the post and it varies with the officers themselves. Often a critical concern is family and children. We see more and more evacuations of nonessential personnel. Evacuations cause a lot of stress and disruption on a family. You have to leave your home, often on just hours’ notice. You don’t know if you’ll ever see the things you leave behind ever again. You don’t know how long it’s going to be. If that happens to you several times in a few years, it’s quite a stressful thing.
Generally, this is not a secure world. When you’re out on the front lines representing America today, you would be foolish to feel too secure. On the other hand, we know that’s part of the package and we know that our government, the State Department, and the administration, any administration, is making a sincere effort to provide the security for personnel first and facilities second.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.